Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Fighting the Good Fight

2 Timothy 4.6-8, 16-18

This passage purports to be Paul's farewell message to his protégé and successor Timothy. Like the three hundred brave soldiers from Sparta who defended Greece against a huge invading Persian army at Thermopylae, Paul senses that he is going to have to sacrifice his life for the cause. Whereas the Spartan soldiers died in the cause of Greek nationhood, to buy more time for the City of Athens to get ready to take up the fight, Paul is going to die in God's service, and for the sake of the Gospel. And just as the death of the Spartans and their king Leonidas was not really a defeat, but the beginning of the end for the Persian invaders, so Paul knows too that his death will not be the end of the struggle to bring Christianity to a disbelieving world. Generations of people since have been inspired by the Spartans' last stand, and similarly Timothy will be inspired by Paul's example. For, like the Spartan royal guard he has fought the good fight. Like an athlete, he has finished the marathon. And, like a true and steadfast believer, he has kept the faith. But he's not a special case. The writer recognises that countless other Christians will do the same and will share with Paul the crown of righteousness when they appear before the Son of Man on the Day of Judgement.

And yet Paul's final days have been tinged with loneliness and sorrow. At first, when he needed help, no one came to his support. Only the Lord Jesus stood beside him, to give him strength. He feels like Daniel, apparently all alone in the lion's den but actually not alone – for he Lord is with him to rescue him from the lion's mouth. But, when Paul thinks of being rescued – like Daniel – from every evil attack, he's not expecting to come through his final ordeal unscathed. He doesn't speak of being pardoned by the Emperor and sent on his way to Spain, where he had intended to go on proclaiming the Gospel after his visit to Rome. He speaks instead of being saved for God's heavenly kingdom.

What does this passage have to say to us? On a very practical level, as we approach Remembrance Sunday, we are reminded that life can demand very real sacrifices from some people. Whatever the merits of the war they're involved in, the soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan find themselves confronting a ruthless and fanatical enemy inspired by a bloodthirsty perversion of Islam. If they do not fight the good fight and stay the course on our behalf, many moderate and peace-loving Muslim people in those countries will be let down and abandoned to their fate, and fanatical Muslims everywhere will feel encouraged. But if they continue to resist, in the face of bitter opposition, they will not only take more heavy casualties, they will also risk being painted as meddlers and invaders interfering in a culture and a faith to which they do not belong. It's an unenviable task and there seems to be no easy way out, no obvious way of being rescued from the lion's mouth.

For Christians there are parallels with our own personal life. The Lord stands alongside us in times of suffering, pain and hardship. He rescues us from evil attack, but that doesn't necessarily mean we shall be snatched from the jaws of death. Eventually we shall all have to be rescued and justified through death and in spite of it.

There are also parallels with church life. We are called to persevere even when times are hard, when we face vandalism and indifference, hostility and even persecution. When the going gets tough we are called to feats of endurance, for that is when the tough get going. Will we be rescued from the lion's mouth if we stand firm? Yes, but not necessarily to carry on with business as usual. Just as the Spartan soldiers had to lose their lives to save their nation, and just as Paul's life had to be poured out as an offering to God, maybe we have to be prepared to sacrifice some things, to let go of some things, in order to be reborn and find new life.

When I was a child I was fascinated by a book which my grandparents had about feats of derring-do in the Second World War. It was illustrated by colour plates depicting various heroic events, and one particularly gripped my imagination. It showed the last stand of HMS Rawalpindi, a lookout ship on patrol near Iceland in November 1939 to prevent German battleships from slipping into the Atlantic to attack allied convoys. Her crew encountered the German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and were able to signal their presence to the British fleet. But, with no chance of escape, the captain and crew refused to surrender and the Rawlapindi was pounded to bits. The picture showed a sailor, up to his knees in water, firing a gun at the distant cruisers while a colleague sits holding his head in his hands. The caption read, 'Burning like a piece of paper, HMS Rawalpindi goes down fighting. It is the proud tradition of the Royal Navy that she never scuppers a ship.'

This story came to my mind once during a church meeting, when people started to talk gloomily about possible closure. I suggested that we shouldn't cut and run. While being realistic about what the future holds, we should be ready to fight the good fight and endure to the end. That church didn't close. It was reborn, in a new form, as a community centre shared with the nearby Anglican Church, and it is still running the race.

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